How to Develop Mental Toughness in an Athlete

How to Develop Mental Toughness in an Athlete

This past weekend I was in Southern California. The bride and I are celebrating 7 years together and she decided to sign up for her first Tough Mudder. 10 miles and 18 obstacles requiring strength, endurance, and above all, mental toughness.

Mental Toughness has been a buzzword as of late, and completing a task like the one Amanda completed requires plenty of it. I ran across a Ted Talk that helps to explain what it takes to be mentally strong and how grit is a great predictor of success in students. She says, “Grit is passion and percerverance for very long term goals…and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

But how does one develop mental toughness? As a sport and performance consultant I get asked this often. To answer, let’s start with defining what it means. The short definition is: One’s ability to perform at a high level under adversity. However, it isn’t that simple.

Being mentally tough is not a static condition; it is dynamic. Mental fortitude can waiver for many reasons. Maybe it’s not important to you, or maybe it’s the end of a long, stressful day. Or maybe you don’t see results quick enough so you give up right before the change you are working for happens. These are situations where being mentally tough will help you succeed.

If you have never watched Kid President talk about being awesome, it it incredibly motivating. My favorite quote from this youtube video is when he says “Some guy named Journey once said- ‘Don’t stop believing…unless your dream is dumb- then get a new dream.'” Kids today need to know its okay to chase after a dream. However, to make that dream happen, a lot of time and energy (and perhaps some good old blood sweat and tears) is needed to get that dream.

Mental toughness requires a person to aware of a situation, assess the situation for lessons to be learned, then continue your journey of improving.  Being mentally strong is not about talent, its about effort. Can you give your all even though no one is watching? Can you control your emotions when everyone else is in crisis mode? That is being mentally tough.

One challenge I like to encourage people to do is to go a day without complaining about anything. For most people, it’s not easy – it requires mental toughness, and it’s also a great way to become aware of how you talk to yourself.

Athlete: Are you used to mom carrying your bag after practice? What if one day she didn’t?  Would you fall apart, maybe start whining because it’s so heavy? It’s your bag- your stuff. Honor your mom by carrying it yourself, and open the car door for her while your at it.

Mom: Make him carry his own bag. He’ll appreciate the experience more if he has to work for it, and it will teach him that if he wants to do something, then he has to work for it. You know from experience that anything you had to work for was, in the end, appreciated more than anything ever handed to you. Give him that experience.

Athlete: Maybe your dad hounds the coach to tell him you should play more, instead of hounding you about working harder to become better so you can earn that spot.

Dad: She’ll be a better person if she learns to fight for herself. You won’t always be there to fight her battles, and the sooner she learns to fight for what she wants in this world, the sooner she’ll realize just how much power she has. Most importantly, she is learning to fight by watching you.

Here are some ideas to develop mental toughness:

  1. Make your bed- every morning. Who doesn’t love to get into a freshly made bed after a long day? It’s a small habit but will be a catalyst to other positive habits.
  2. Next time you say, “I should stop doing that,” figure out a way to stop doing it. If you get a stomachache when you drink soda, stop doing that. If you are always late to practice, stop doing that. Take responsibility for your actions and become the awesome person you wish you were. Here is a great video that shows you how to be AWESOME.
  3. Determine who works the hardest at practice and commit to working harder than them. They don’t need to know what you are doing. In fact, don’t tell them until afterward – when you thank them for pushing you. There is nothing like competition at practice to prepare you for the game

James Leath is a youth sports psychology consultant with over 15 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sports psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters in Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath, or visit his website jamesleath.com.

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